"Being a good husband is like being a good stand-up comic — you need 10 years before you can even call yourself a beginner."
— Jerry Seinfeld
Mere minutes before making his comedic debut at the Comedy Catch on Brainerd Road, Billy Brumlow is pacing the lobby area, greeting friends and going over his routine in his head.
He pauses in front of a wall plastered with dozens of publicity pictures of comics who have performed at the club over the last 25 years. Names like Jerry Seinfeld, Jeff Foxworthy, D.L. Hugley, Tommy Chong, Paula Poundstone, Tommy Davidson, Carrot Top, Tracy Morgan, Gallagher, James Gregory, Pauly Shore, Bobcat Goldthwait and -- Brumlow's personal favorite -- Ron White.
He only has three minutes on stage, but it marks his first time ever telling his own jokes in front of a crowd. He says he's not nervous. Whether he kills or dies on stage, he knows he's getting a rare chance, and he has every intention of seizing the moment. Lots of comics toil for years before getting to take the stage in one of the better comedy clubs in the country, and Brumlow knows he's lucky.
"This is an amazing opportunity," he says.
A special needs teacher, Brumlow has also worked as a DJ in local clubs and as a videographer's assistant. When his 36-year-old old sister, Stephanie Parrott, was killed in a car accident last October, the 35-year-old Central High School graduate decided to take some time off to evaluate his life.
Always a practical joker and a class clown, Brumlow says friends and family have long told him he should be a comic. Stephanie, a registered nurse at Moccasin Bend Mental Health Institute, was his biggest supporter and it was her death that eventually catapulted him into doing something that his heart had longed to try.
He wasn't looking for a career change necessarily, and still isn't, but he couldn't shake the idea that he needed to do this.
"Teachers and administers have always told me I should be a comic. I was wittiest in my class and it is something I've always wanted to do," he says. "I'm doing it now for my sister. She was always the first to tell me to do this."
It seems to be a common trait among comics that they are serious and thoughtful offstage, especially during an interview; Brumlow is no different. He comes with a notepad full of prepared answers to anticipated questions and pauses to think before every answer.
Onstage he seems much more at ease, donning a friendly smile and moving around, engaging the entire audience.
As a DJ at clubs like the now-closed Southern Comfort, Brumlow is used to being in front of a crowd and ad-libbing on the microphone. He feels like that experience, and his overall personality, will help him during his debut.
"I have no problem talking to large groups," he says.
Another supporter has been G.R. Goodwin, a local comic who puts together shows four or five times a year at the Comedy Catch, featuring himself, one or two other regional, working comics and occasionally a new comic looking for a break. He and Brumlow had developed a relationship over the years and, when Brumlow expressed an interest in trying stand-up, Goodwin gave him the chance.
On a Tuesday night last month, in front of a nearly packed house, Brumlow broke one of the cardinals rules in comedy, according to Goodwin; he lost track of his time and stretched his three-minute set to nine.
"I thought overall he did great, but I think he got a little nervous," Goodwin says.
Patrick Mattos, 25, a semi-regular Comedy Catch patron, felt Brumlow made a good first appearance.
"Well, having a friend who is a comedian, I understand how hard it is to get up and try to make people laugh and, for his first time in front of a crowd and it being at the Comedy Catch, I thought he did pretty good," says Mattos. "Of course, experience will only make him better."
Brumlow, with his athletic good looks and long brown hair, focused his set -- which was filled with adult language -- primarily on some of the differences between white and black people. He opened with a mistaken identity story about riding around in a convertible with a friend who took a call from his angry girlfriend over the car's Bluetooth system. The whole conversation, which consisted primarily of her yelling at him for riding around in front of everyone with "a blond-headed white woman (Brumlow)," could be heard by everyone near the car.
The punchline, delivered by the friend to his girlfriend, "HE actually has brown hair," draws laughs from the audience, but Brumlow is proudest of an ad-lib line delivered a little later. When he mentions that he teaches at Tyner High School, which today has a student body that is about 90 percent black, a table full of older white couples cheers.
"When were you there, 1962?" Brumlow jokes.
A couple of days after the show, Brumlow is happy with his performance, though having listened to a tape of the show, he knows he can make improvements.
"I said a lot of unnecessary things," he says. "I was supposed to do three minutes and I did nine. After listening to the audio I could have made the jokes sharper. I listened to it 10 or 15 times. It would have been better if I'd chopped some stuff out of it."
Brumlow and Goodwin both say editing is one of the hardest things a comedian must master. Realizing that a single word, or even a look instead of words, can be funnier than several words.
"It's definitely a challenge," Brumlow says. "Especially when you are trying to cram all of your material into three minutes."
Goodwin has been a comic for almost 10 years and says he has learned his strengths and weaknesses.
"I don't think I'm funny, but I have stage presence and I know how to talk to people. It's about mannerisms and sometimes that's more important than being funny. It's being likable."
Comedy Catch owner Michael Alfano agrees and says Brumlow "has that stage presence."
"That is the first thing I look for," Alfano says. "The thing I always tell new comics is get right to the joke. They tend to wander or meander like anyone else in a new job.
"Jay Leno once said that, when he writes a joke, he might start with 33 words and then, by the time, it airs on the show, it might be 13 words,'" Alfano says. "Make 'em laugh and get to the point fast."
There is an adage in comedy that it takes five years to become a comic. Then the real work begins.
"There's no real preparing at home for stand-up," says comedian Louis C.K. is quoted as saying in earlier interviews. "You just go and you just do it."
In some ways, the next steps for Brumlow, if he wants to pursue stand-up, are backwards. He wasn't looking for a career change, so he is still uncertain to what degree he might pursue doing stand-up. If he does go for it, he needs stage time, Goodwin says, and that means open mike nights in tiny clubs, sometimes driving hundreds of miles to get three minutes in front of 10 people. Every night is not a full house at the Comedy Catch.
Like a bad golfer who sinks a long putt or hits a pure drive, doing stand-up has that one thing or moment that make people want to keep doing it and Brumlow got that during his debut.
"I got laughs."
Contact Barry Courter at email@example.com or 423-757-6354.
Barry Courter is staff reporter and columnist for the Times Free Press. He started his journalism career at the Chattanooga News-Free Press in 1987. He covers primarily entertainment and events for ChattanoogaNow, as well as feature stories for the Life section. Born in Lafayette, Ind., Barry has lived in Chattanooga since 1968. He graduated from Notre Dame High School and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with a degree in broadcast journalism. He previously was ...